Tag Archives: USA
10 January, 2017

New Year’s in Los Angeles

Nobody goes to Los Angeles. They may say they do, but no. Those friends of yours who vacation in Santa Monica and Hermosa, or  one time partied in Hollywood or Beverly Hills? They probably never went to L.A. either. The closest they likely came to Los Angeles, the city, was a Lakers game. On the eve before New Year’s Eve, coming straight from the airport, we went to L.A. The city. Downtown. The only part of L.A. I’d ever been. The part that continues, to this day, to offer visitors a glimpse of what Manhattan, New York looked like thirty years ago, before Disney and the M&M Store moved in and squeezed the homeless and needle-pushers out.

Our good friends Katrina and Alan return to Los Angeles, the county, most winters to visit Alan’s family who still reside there. For as long as we’ve known them, we’ve been treated to stories of the incredible New Year’s Day feast that Alan’s mother assembles in Japanese tradition. Anyone who has read this blog for long likely knows the attachment I have for Japanese culture and food. So it should come as no surprise when I say that I’ve been angling for us to spend New Year’s in Los Angeles, with Alan’s family, for several years.

But the first stop was downtown.

Come for the Drinks, Skip the Food

There are times to wander around aimlessly, cafe-and-bar-hopping your way through a new place. Then there are times when it pays to have a plan, a local guide, and some friends to share the experience with. Our trip to Los Angeles, a sprawling massive region where it takes no less than 45 minutes to get anywhere, would have, at the least, required a lot more work on our part if not for Katrina’s planning — and their family sedan.

Still, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised — and concerned — when it was revealed that our first stop would be downtown. At a cafeteria, no less.

My prior L.A. experience consisted entirely of visits to the convention center and shuttle-vans to and from my hotel on Grand. I knew enough to know that downtown L.A. was 1) a dump, and 2) not a place anyone ever went. That being said, Clifton’s Cafeteria, the “World’s Largest Cafeteria” from “The Golden Age of Cafeterias” (their words) is a heck of a sight. Massive redwoods and boulders, crystals, and plant life give the towering multi-story cafeteria a mystical outdoorsy feeling while somehow avoiding the cheesiness of Rainforest Cafe. The cafeteria’s Forest Glen setting is said to have inspired Walt Disney.

The Atrium at Clifton’s Cafeteria. Photo from www.discoverlosangeles.com

But while the food itself, bland home-style country staples, could be easily forgotten (if, unlike me, your stomach allows it) the numerous bars occupying the bulk of Clifton’s space in the old rundown theater district on South Broadway, are sure to be remembered. A modest dress code — no sneakers or t-shirts, look spiffy — is enforced for the upper bars where Art Deco decor and period-dressed servers and bartenders await. Drinks are pricey, at $14 each, but the speakeasy-vibe of the “secret” Pacific Seas tiki bar (hidden atop a stairwell behind a mirrored false-wall) adds a sense of intrigue to the night. Unfortunately, the 60s-era Chris-Craft speedboat in the bar offered no additional seating and we retreated to the spacious, yet frigid, Gothic Bar. A fine spot.

Inside The Last Bookstore. Photo from www.welikela.com

From there we walked a few blocks over to The Last Bookstore, a shop I had just heard about that week. The lower floor is like any other indie bookstore, though with an expansive rare books section that, unfortunately for me, was primarily art books (though they did have a 1st edition Catcher in the Rye in not-good condition). But upstairs, they’ve piled their books in such a way as to create several book sculptures and other installations that are truly worth visiting. There are also several art galleries along the walkway and a tunnel of LED-lit books you can walk through which was very neat. I picked up Silence, the book that inspired the upcoming Martin Scorsese film about the Christian Japanese from the early 17th century. It just so happens that one of the characters in my work-in-progress is also from that era.

Pre-Partying Around Hollywood

We were staying at a house we rented on AirBnb, near Alan’s family in Torrance. This location was not only close to his parents, but also right near the King’s Hawaiian restaurant and bakery, an absolutely fantastic place to have breakfast. Nobody bakes a cake like the Hawaiians. A fact we were reminded of later that day, after watching some football, when Alan’s parents surprised Kristin with a guava, passion fruit, and lime birthday cake that was even better than it sounds.

But yes, it was Kristin’s birthday and it was New Year’s Eve, and we had plans. Despite the unseasonable cold and drizzle, we donned our suits and dresses and went out for a night on the town. First stop: a stroll down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. All of the shops were closed, the tourists had mostly gone home, and we were able to enjoy some nice window shopping at our leisure. We have many of the same shops in nearby Bellevue, but luxury retailers aside, Rodeo is just a nice street to go for a walk, especially when everything is lit up for Christmas.

Rodeo Drive. Photo from www.viceroyhotelgroup.com

From there, we cut through a neighborhood of gated, outrageously expensive homes to Sunset Boulevard, and up to Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant and bar in the style of an Edo-period palace. It’s tremendous looking and offers a fantastic view of greater L.A. from atop its hill in Hollywood Heights. Sadly, only those staying for the New Year’s Eve party (with $50 cover charge) could get in. We merely wanted an early evening pre-dinner drink so had to move along. Definitely a place to return to in the future.

Fortunately, we found a great bar right on Hollywood Boulevard, smack dab between the restaurant we were eating at and the Egyptian Theater, where the party we had tickets for was located. Some drinks and free tequila shots later, we went to The Musso and Frank Grill, an old steakhouse from 1919 that was a frequent haunt of A-listers during Hollywood’s golden age. We spotted no celebrities (nor were we looking for any) but we had a terrific meal. Veal, filet mignon, prime rib, and lamb chops were on order, and each were delicious. I’m still partial to Seattle’s Metropolitan Grill f0r when it comes to high-end steak houses, but Musso and Frank was certainly a cut above Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s, not just in food, but ambiance too.

The four of us at Musso and Frank Grill.

Scamming Like It’s 2017

Our friends have had great luck attending themed NYE parties in L.A. on prior years, usually getting tickets ahead of time through GoldStar, a membership discount site for events and concerts. This year, we settled on a party at the Egyptian Theater. VIP tickets, at a discounted $70 each, were supposed to get us into an extra area or two. In reality, despite arriving by 10:30, the main indoor space was jam packed. The lines for drinks (open bars, included in price) stretched around the block and back to 2012. We waited and pushed, and eventually got in. Only to find the main space packed with hundreds of people, far beyond fire safety codes, and with no chance of getting a drink. I descended the stairs in a search for a restroom and stumbled across the room our yellow wristbands were supposed to get us into.

But instead of going in, we made the mistake of going back outside, convinced the VIP area was somewhere else. It wasn’t.

And then, in those minutes that we were back outside in the frigid outdoor courtyard area, the line to get in had grown so long that it was effectively a mob scene. A stationary stampede of humanity pressing against a single open door. For forty minutes we stood in line trying to get back inside the space we shouldn’t have left. Now and then a staff member would escort a private party of six inside, those who paid thousands of dollars to reserve a table. The “bottle service” option.

It was 11:40. There was no getting inside. For anyone. The wristbands mattered nothing. Everyone had one.

We went back to the bar near the entrance and got another pair of drinks. But first, a trip to the port-a-potties. Formal wear, frigid temps (for L.A.) and five port-a-potties with a line of over 40 people waiting for them. Nevermind.

We were furious. The party was a complete scam. The outdoor music was horrible, they sold too many tickets, had too few bars, too few restrooms. And the inside area was a deathtrap, crammed with far too many people. Everyone we talked with was furious.

Determined to not be in line for a port-a-potty at midnight, or stewing in our fury, we exited the scam of a party and ran back across the street to the hole-in-the-wall bar we were in before. We made our way to the back room (the place was now packed) and quickly made some new friends and toasted and danced in the new year.

Alan graciously stopped drinking at one in the morning and was able to drive the rest of us home at three.

A great night saved from disaster.

The Japanese Feast for 2017

Ignoring the leftover birthday cake I munched down at 3am, we began our 2017 in traditional Japanese style, with ozoni, a brothy soup featuring a big piece of mochi. Ozoni is the obligatory first meal of the new year. Personally, I’m not a fan of mochi unless its got a scoop of ice cream inside it, but the broth was very tasty and well, of course we were going to eat it.

The four of us excused ourselves over to Culver City where, right across from Sony Pictures, is a bar that serves as the homebase for Seahawks fans in southern California. Dee-jays played music and emceed during commercial breaks, free blue and green mystery shots were served at halftime, and dozens of displaced Seahawks fans cheered and jeered the victory over the lowly Forty-Niners.

Back at the family home, a table with tens of dishes awaited us, as did many of Alan’s family members. In addition to comfort food like grilled pork and chicken, BBQ shrimp, char-siu, and gyoza, there were plenty of specific foods and dishes served for their symbolic meaning. Daikon, burdock root, and carrots — all root vegetables — were served to strengthen the family roots. Dried kelp, kombu, was served to inspire joy. Tiny dried fish (which were served fried and really tasty), gomame, are eaten for good health. Lotus Root, renkon, was cut in round slices to symbolize the Buddhist wheel of life. Black beans are also eaten for health while a very tasty chestnut dish signifies mastery of success.

Just some of the food for the New Year’s Day feast!

Kristin and I stayed away from the herring roe which is eaten to increase fertility. We did partake in the carp which is eaten for its indomitable spirit.

And on and on it went. So. Much. Food. Deserving special mention were the caramel macaroons which Alan’s nephew made. Macaroons far lighter and more delectable than any we had in Paris.

New Year’s Day had traditionally been a non-event for us. A day to relax and clean up from the holidays, perhaps. But this year it was so much more. We got to spend it with great friends and their wonderful family. We ate delicious multi-cultural food, learned a bit about its significance, and swapped travel stories and more. It was a fantastic day, I won’t soon forget.

Six Flags and a Beach Cruise

We finished up our time in L.A. with a trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain on Monday, but only after a breakfast stop at Gardena Bowl. You read that right, we went to a bowling alley for breakfast. This is where having a local comes in handy, as there’s simply no way we would have known of such a place. In fact, Gardena Bowl was where Alan used to bowl in the 80s and its Hawaiian-Asian cafe is a local hot spot. We had to wait for a table at 9am, but the wait was worth it, for the sausage and egg mix.

Magic Mountain was cold and crowded so after realizing that the lines were over two hours for each ride, we scurried back to the entrance booth and bought the Flash Pass. It ended up nearly tripling the entrance fee per person, but we never had to wait for more than ten minutes, and most times we just walked right on to the rides. Still, because we’re not awful people, we did feel bad about bypassing a three-hour wait to board immediately. Alas, we only attend these amusement parks every few years. It’s worth it.

Tuesday, our last day in Los Angeles, was spent at the beach. We rented bikes in Hermosa and rode north six miles past Manhattan Beach to El Segundo. L.A. County has a paved bike path that stretches from Palos Verde, south of Redondo Beach, thirty miles north to Malibu, rarely crossing any streets and routinely swept free of sand. We didn’t go far on account of the bad cold I had caught over the weekend, but we got a nice taste of the Strand and the hundreds of beach volleyball courts set up near Manhattan Beach, the dozens of surfers braving the cold, and the oodles of jaw-dropping homes perched above the beach.

The Strand bike path going past Manhattan Beach. Photo from www.caskeyandcaskey.com

We didn’t have time to visit Venice Beach, but did have lunch at the famed Santa Monica Pier, the terminus of Route 66. An excellent way to cap off our L.A. trip.

California Kindness

One thing that I would be remiss not to mention is just how friendly everyone in L.A. was. I always noticed this during my many business trip to Southern California, but it bears repeating. I can’t stress how nice it was to spend all that time, often in very crowded places — bars, amusement parks, nightclubs, and restaurants — with so many friendly, polite people. People of all walks of life, of all nationalities. Every one of them, from fast food workers to other club goers, were all so nice and approachable and friendly. No posturing. No distant coldness. No aggression or agitation. Just a polite mellow that made the whole experience so much more enjoyable than if it had been nearly anywhere else I’d ever been or lived.

In some ways, this added an extra layer of Japaneseyness to the weekend. After all Japan and southern California are the only places I’ve ever been where employees and guests alike seem to focus on making sure that everyone’s experience is as great as it can be. There’s a quality of life in SoCal that is hard to replicate anywhere, and it’s not just for those in the multi-million dollar homes on the beach or in the hills. Its ingrained in the people. The people who might be taking your order. The people you might be waiting in line behind. The people you might strike up conversation with at a bar. The people are just friendly.

Such a shame that it’s noteworthy.

Special Thanks: To Alan and Katrina for being such great friends and for inviting us to join you in your family’s New Year’s celebration. To Alan’s parents, Aiko and Sam, for being such gracious hosts. Thank you so much for everything! To the rest of Alan’s family, thank you all for making us feel so welcome. We hope to see you all again soon! And last but not least, thanks to Jeremy and Jessica for watching our beloved Juniper while we were gone. You’re the best!

26 August, 2016

Day-Hiking the Central Cascades #2

Earlier this spring I posted a quick rundown of some of the hikes we had so far done in Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Central Cascades book (see here). Though we’re nowhere close to having gone through the entire guide — a book that represents a small fraction of the boundless hiking opportunities in Washington — we did check quite a few more off the list. Some we did as part of the overnight backpacking trip chronicled here; others were part of our recent Enchantment Traverse.

Now that summer is winding down, we expect to get out even more. Nothing stokes the fire of my passion for the outdoors like the coming autumn weather. We’re still dealing with some unusually warm 90-degree days here in western Washington, but I expect the weather to break by the time we get home from Portugal in a couple weeks. There’s still a few higher elevation hikes we hope to get in before the snows return.  But enough about that, on to the next installment…

Puget Sound Lowlands

We didn’t plan on doing any more of the lowland hikes once the weather started warming up, but one day we just felt like going for a run — and wanted an excuse to stop at a pizza place we like. So back to the Everett area we went…

Spencer Island (Hike #9)

Distance: 4 miles

Surface: Pavement, Grass, Woodchip

Verdict: Great for locals or bird watchers.

Spencer Island Bridge

The jacknife bridge heading out to Spencer Island. Photo by HikeOfTheWeek.com

The actual Spencer Island trail is a short soft-surface lollipop hike on an island in the Snohomish River estuary, just east of Everett. We parked along the river and ran the multi-use paved Langus Riverfront Trail two miles then crossed a small pedestrian bridge to the island. The trail simply loops around the southern tip of Spencer Island, winding along cattails and making its way back across the island on a levee. There’s some nice viewpoints for you to see the Cascades and plenty of egrets and herons to spot (and the odd turtle or two). We were there to get a workout in so no photos. I doubt we’d ever return, as there’s just too many options closer to home.

Skykomish River Valley

While the upper elevation trails slowly melted out from their winter burial, we made a few trips to the western slope of Stevens  Pass, for a fewer mid-elevation hikes to alpine lakes.

Greider Lakes (Hike #12)

Distance: 8.6 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Steep, crowded, but a worthy hike to a scenic lake.

Boulder Lake (Hike #13)

Distance: 13.8 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Overgrown, un-maintained, and technically closed, but the prettier of the two lakes.

Boulder Creek Bridge

Kristin crossing the technically-closed, hope-it-doesn’t-collapse Boulder Creek Bridge.

We combined these two hikes into one lengthy trail run of about 19 miles or so. It made for a long day, especially since the Boulder Lake trail is technically closed. The bridge across Boulder Creek had been blocked off, the decking and railings removed, and the trail beyond it in a complete state of abandon. Nevertheless, after much hemming and hawing on the banks of the impassable creek, we decided to risk it. Though Boulder Lake was certainly a worthy destination, it wasn’t worth the miles of rock, blowdown, and overgrown trail we had to deal with to reach it. Doing Greider Lake after Boulder Lake was a test of mental and physical endurance. And patience — there’s an awful lot of people that hike to Greider Lake. A nice hike, but there are better nearby, such as…

Bridal Veil Falls & Serene Lake (Hike #16)

Distance: 9 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A must-do early summer hike.

Lake Serene

Lake Serene has to be one of the most beautiful, lower elevation alpine lakes in western WA.

This was another combo hike that we decided to “run” that could actually be done separately. The mountains around here are filled with beautiful cliff-ringed, snow-fed alpine lakes, but Lake Serene was absolutely one of our favorites. Getting there isn’t easy. The climb up to the lake gets incredibly steep and is mainly a staircase for a mile long stretch that climbs nearly a thousand feet in that span. One thing to be sure, there will be ample two- and four-legged companions to keep you company. This hike is very popular. But for good reason. Fortunately, many people choose to go only as far as the waterfall. We hit the lake first, passing the base of the falls on our way, and then detoured up to the top of the falls (you can practically walk out over the edge… and chance death if you’d like) on the return. The climb to the top of the falls is another half-mile, very steep trail, but the falls are quite pretty. I do believe Lake Serene and Bridal Veil Falls will become an annual hike for us going forward.

Wenatchee River Valley

I flew home from Vancouver, BC on a Friday night, packed my gear, and drove out to Leavenworth an hour later so we could finally, after 14 years in the PNW, complete one of the most beautiful hikes in the region. The following two entries make up the two ends of the traverse, but miss the best part in my opinion.

Snow Lakes (Hike #56)

Distance: 13 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Unless you’re descending from the Enchantments, do Colchuck instead.

Colchuck Lake (Hike #57)

Distance: 8.4 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Absolutely worth doing, even just as an out-and-back.

Colchuck Lake

Looking across Colchuck Lake towards Aasgard Pass and the way up into the Enchantments.

Our 20-mile traverse began with a hike up to Colchuck Lake. It’s not a particularly challenging hike and the lake offers excellent swimming opportunities, ample (permit-only) backcountry camping, and a gentle descent back to the trailhead. It’s absolutely worth doing as a day-hike, even if you don’t intend to climb Aasgard Pass and do the traverse. The other end of that traverse descends from Snow Lakes. I would NEVER hike up that trail unless I was training to climb Mt. Rainier. Let me put it this way: I hated descending from Snow Lakes. It’s very steep (roughly 4,000 feet in six miles) and can be annoyingly rocky in spots. Now, this isn’t to say that the Snow Lakes area isn’t very pretty. It is. But you will never catch me coming up from that direction. Given that Colchuck (and several others) are just a little further up Icicle Creek road, I don’t know why you’d use this for a day-hike.

Blewett Pass

Of all the hikes we’ve been doing from this book, the Blewett Pass trails are probably the closest to our home. They’re also unique in that , though east of the mountains, they still have that rugged Cascade mountain feel we west-siders expect, but with drier conditions.

Ingalls Creek (Hike #116)

Distance: 11 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Not unless you really enjoy climbing over fallen trees.

Sherpa Peak

The view of Sherpa Peak from Ingalls Creek trail.

We hiked several miles of the Ingalls Creek trail during our overnight hike in the Teanaway Valley, hiking the section from Cascade Creek to Fourth Creek. I cannot begin to tell you how many dozens (hundreds?) of blowdowns we had to climb over. The Ingalls Creek trail runs along the namesake creek, at the base of the south side of the Enchantments. It’s a very pretty hike, particularly as recent forest fires have yielded clearer views at Sherpa Peak and the Stuart Range due north of the trail, but it appears to get very little attention from volunteer groups or the Forest Service. Trip reports on sites like WTA.org suggest that few hikers continue up the trail beyond Falls Creek (downstream of where we were).

Naneum Meadow (Hike #119)

Distance: 7 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A pretty meadow, but a rough drive.

Mount Lillian (Hike #120)

Distance: 7.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail, Double-Track

Verdict: Great views across to the Stuart Range, fun geology.

Mount Lillian hoodoos

Kristin running past the hoodoos near Mount Lillian.

We combined these two routes in a 13-mile loop that proved a bit too rocky, loose, and steep for us to run much of. But it was totally worth it, despite me bonking halfway through worst than I had in years. The Mount Lillian area offers great views across to the Stuart Range and snow-capped mountains, all while switchbacking your way past sandstone hoodoos and other geologic oddities. I can’t say the portion of the trail connecting Naneum Meadow with Mount Lillian was terribly fun to run, but it was scenic, even with the scars of wildfire evident everywhere. You’ll actually pass several meadows in this area and the chance of spotting elk is always present. As is finding some morel mushrooms if you got in May. Some of the trails have been torn up a bit from moto usage (quads and dirt bikes) but the area sees very little use on account of the rough forest roads one has to navigate to reach the trailhead. We actually flatted on the way back out, forcing me to put the spare tire on when we got onto pavement.

Wenatchee

I’ve mountain biked this next trail multiple times and always felt bad for never exposing Kristin to the beauty of the area. This year, after riding amongst the wildflowers with a large group of fellow mountain bikers, I returned with Kristin the following weekend and hit peak-bloom.

Sage Hills (Hike #122)

Distance: 10 miles

Surface: Sandy hillside trails.

Verdict: A must-do the third week of April.

balsam root

Sage Hills area covered in balsam root.

We skipped the book’s 5.5 mile route in favor of the ten-mile loop I mountain biked the prior weekend, making sure to climb all the way to the top of the area for the most wildflowers. A lot of us try to ride Sage Hills every April, but I had never seen the wildflowers blooming like they did when we went running. The fields were blanketed in balsam root, lupine, and indian paintrbrush, among others I forget the names of. And of course, the area smells of sage. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking a hike (a hilly one, mind you) along a yellow-painted hillside, then head to Wenatchee in mid-April and hike Sage Hills. It’s worth the 2+ hour drive from the Seattle area.

8 August, 2016

Traversing the Enchantments

I hadn’t seen a cairn in at least ten minutes. But there were boot tracks, and I knew we weren’t lost. The trail had to be down there somewhere. Still, this provided little comfort as I stared down a vertical cliff, wondering how we were going to descend from a ledge we shouldn’t have come to. We stepped and dropped and scrambled our way to what appeared to be a dead-end. Going down wasn’t an option; going back up the way we came was a task I’d rather not consider. As I grabbed the branch of an alpine larch for balance and swung around the cliff, trying not to look down and hoping Kristin could make the maneuver, it dawned on me that perhaps we shouldn’t have waited so long to do this hike.

For twelve years we’d been putting off this bucket-list hike. My, how it would have been easier when we were younger. Fitter.

For fourteen years we’ve lived a short two hours from one of the most beautiful hikes in Washington state, if not the entire country. And yet here we were, finally, for the first time. How many times have we pushed it off on account of me wanting to go mountain biking or Kristin going to visit family or one of us being on a business trip. Or because we didn’t have a permit or didn’t want to go without the dogs. The excuses were endless. I spent the last week in Vancouver, BC for work and only returned home Friday evening. We pulled into an overpriced Howard Johnson near the trailhead late Friday night after a short detour home so I could pack. And the only reason we did was because the motel was paid for, else we may have canceled again. Sometimes you just have to commit.

Trekking Aasgard Pass

The shuttle deposited us at the wrong trailhead, leaving us with an additional three-quarter mile walk up the road. None of us in the truck realized until the driver had already left. It served as a nice warm-up before the uphill hike to Colchuck Lake, a turquoise gem we had hiked to once before for an afternoon swim with a visiting cousin.  I remember then looking across the lake at the vertical granite wall known as Aasgard Pass and thrilling at the thought of finally, one of these days, cresting the pass and taking in the views of the Enchantment Basin beyond.

Colchuck Lake

Looking across Colchuck Lake to Aasgard Pass, left of Dragontail Peak.

Guidebook author Craig Romano has this to say about Aasgard Pass:

Beyond the lake, the way continues as a climber’s route to 7800-foot Aasgard Pass. Only experienced and extremely fit off-trail travelers should consider attempting this taxing and potentially dangerous climb involving 2200 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile.

Looking across the lake this time, knowing where we were headed, I was ecstatic. We were finally going to do it. But did it always look so steep? The closer we got to the start of the climb, the more the butterflies began to flutter. And the further the top seemed. I’m not sure what I expected, but the boulder fields and drifting piles of moondust made the going even slower than I had expected. Just getting around the lake to the beginning of the climb was an ordeal. Cairns (piles of rocks) marked a suggested route up the pass, but there is no trail nor one right way to go. Boot tracks can be found zigzagging across the scree slope in myriad directions. The climb was slow going, sketchy at times, and occasionally puzzling.

Aasgard Pass

Kristin roughly two-thirds of the way up Aasgard Pass.

Rock climbers scaled a nearby spire. Granite boulders the size of buses littered the hillside. Remnant fields of snow and trickles of meltwater added to the scenery and the challenge. This was alpine trekking like we had never experienced it before. And two hours after leaving the shores of Lake Colchuck, we reached the top. Two hours of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other toil brought us up the 40% grade.

And it was absolutely worth it.

Isolation Lake

Kristin tasting the rainbow in a slice of heaven.

The Enchantment Lakes Basin

Perched high atop a mountain-ringed plateau in central Washington lies the Enchantments. A basin home to some two-dozen turquoise lakes with names like Inspiration, Perfection, Tranquil, and Crystal, it is the crown jewel of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. And it was in danger of being loved to death. A permit system now regulates overnight stays in the area during the peak summer months — and permits can be very hard to get for those who don’t plan months in advance. Fortunately for those with the fitness (or misguided confidence), the 19-mile trek across the Enchantments from one end to the other can be done without a permit, provided you complete the route in a single day.

mountain goat

Mountain goat frolicking on the rocks near our lunch spot.

It is not a place one wants to hurry through. Dozens of sparkling lakes dot the landscape amid fields of snow and endless outcrops of glittery granite. We took a seat on the banks of Isolation Lake and alternated bites of our sandwiches with mouthfuls of Skittles and dried fruit, all the while snapping countless photos. The lakes, the mountains, the goats and the marmots. Every direction a new and interesting sight.

Enchantment Basin

A view from the trail into one of the lower lakes.

Being One with the Mountain Goats

Despite the lake’s name, we weren’t alone. There were some other hikers, for sure, but people tend to get pretty spread out in such a massive landscape. No, those lingering within earshot were not human. Mountain goats grazed mere yards away. A baby goat cried to its mama. Two nearby goats scampered along the rocks. Others walked ahead on the trail. I had missed a chance to photograph a mountain goat some fourteen years ago after nearly walking right into one on the McClellan Butte trail and I wasn’t going to miss my chance again. The mountain goats proved to be accommodating models.

Enchantment Basin

Three hikers heading in the opposite direction traverse the upper basin.

Though the majority of the elevation gain was behind us, we still had some twelve miles to go. We could have spent days soaking in the views, but we had to keep moving. The crossing typically takes between ten and twelve hours for those of similar ability and we wanted to avoid finishing in the dark (though we did have headlamps with us, just in case).

Enchantment Lakes

Kristin crossing a snow field in the upper Enchantments.

The thing we quickly realized about this hike is that the elevation profile is misleading. Sure, the route is primarily flat and then steeply downhill once you’re past Aasgard Pass, but the surface is highly technical. The eight miles through the basin and down towards Snow Lake are extremely rocky, dotted with lingering snow fields, and require periodic scrambling. The trekking poles we carried alternated between essential and hindrance, as we often needed to use our hands for grip on the too-steep terrain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is a major comfort knowing how capable Kristin is when it comes to outdoor travel. Yet, this route was pushing the limits of our comfort zone.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

 

Stay low and try not to fall.

Stay low and try not to fall.

Twelve miles and some eight hours into the hike, we were ready to have it over with. The views were amazing, we saw ample wildlife — marmots, chipmunks, and at least two dozen mountain goats — but the terrain soon wore us down. Eleven hours of walking on granite soon had our feet hot and sore. Blisters formed on my pinky toes, and the stress of worrying about our footing and the precarious nature of the trail exhausted our minds. We spent the final five miles descending some three thousand feet on aching feet and wondering when and if we’d ever do this again.

mountain goat follows hiker

This particular goat followed us for a while.

I can’t answer that. Not yet anyway. I’d like to think we’ll return again in the future for an overnight hike. After all, there is so much up there that we hadn’t seen yet. And I really can’t think of anywhere I’ve been that is more beautiful. The photos, as impressive as I think they came out, don’t do the place justice. The landscape is just too big, the colors too stark, to fit in these little images. But if I learned anything, I now know not to underestimate the difficulty of this hike. It’s far harder than its measurements suggest. 19 miles and 5000 feet of climbing may not sound that hard, but this trip took every bit of eleven hours to complete with a modest amount of down time. Chew on that before you tackle it. And then have a great time.

Some parts of the descent made for some interesting moments.

Some parts of the descent were more interesting than others.

 

Perfection Lake

Hiking alongside Perfection Lake before beginning the descent.

13 June, 2016

Backpacking the Teanaway Valley

If you were to ask me, interview style, what my biggest weakness is, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer. Not with my body aching as it does from sunburnt head to blistered toes. No, I would not pause in telling you that I often underestimate the challenge of my grand ideas. I don’t come up short, but the finish line is only reached through much pain and suffering along the way. I was acutely aware of this habit yesterday afternoon as we faced our final climb of an arduous weekend spent backpacking the Teanaway Valley. The climb, a 2.5 mile grunt climbing 2,200 feet up Bean Creek, was a stark reminder of how much easier these types of trips seem in the planning stages.

Equipped with a new 2-pound, two-person tent, one of the lightest and most compact on the market, we set off to explore one of the most picturesque areas of central Washington. The Teanaway Valley in Wenatchee National Forest is a place I’ve gone mountain biking numerous times over the years, and on some of these very trails, but never on foot, and never such a route. We began at the seldom-used Standup Creek trailhead, at the end of a steep dirt road featuring a dozen water bars that nearly damaged our car. We bottomed out on several of them on the way up and dug the front into a few more on the way back down. Fortunately, the car survived to deliver us to the overgrown, un-maintained Standup Creek trail (#1369). Up we went, hiking seemingly straight uphill at times. Four miles and three-thousand feet of elevation later, we reached our reward.

Standup Creek

Kristin atop the Standup Creek divide.

The descent into the adjacent drainage valley was covered in snow drifts, requiring some tricky route-finding. While Kristin can dance her petite frame across the drifts without care, I broke through on more than one occasion, plunging me groin-deep in snow. Fortunately, the east-facing slope only held snow above 5,600 feet and we were soon onto the Stafford Creek trail (#1359) and climbing again. The upper Teanaway Valley features a ridge that runs east-west at roughly 6,200 feet above sea level. Either side of this ridge is fluted with a number of drainages, V-shaped valleys that tumble down into the main creek on either side. On the south side, that’s the Teanaway River, to the north it’s Ingalls Creek. There is no flat land in this area. To hike it is to commit yourself to rising and falling in and out of these various drainage valleys. But the view of the Stuart Mountain Range to the north makes it all worth it.

Stuart Range

The view of the Stuart Range, looking north from the County Line Trail atop Stafford Creek.

Forest fire swept through the Ingalls Creek side of the ridge several years ago and many of the trails that descend this lesser-visited area have been left to return to nature. Oh, they’re still on the maps, but carry the warning: “Trail overgrown, hard to find.” Dropping off the north side of the County Line ridge, between Navaho Peak and Iron Peak, are several of these hard-to-follow trails. We sat atop the ridge, enjoying the view of the Stuart Range while eating our tinfoil-wrapped sandwiches, and decided to go for it. The upper reaches of the Cascade Creek trail (#1217)  was buried in snow, but the map showed a dashed line staying just left of the creek. If we skirt the snow to the left, and double back towards the creek, we should intersect the remnants of the trail. Or so we thought.

Cascade Creek trail.

Descending the Cascade Creek drainage from Navaho Pass. One of the few areas we weren’t pushing through brush.

In reality, the trail is gone. Completely. There are also several creeks, cliffs, and a jumble of fallen trees littering this scarily-steep valley that made this descent one of the most arduous things either of us have ever done on two feet. The trail, just 2.4 miles in length, descending some 2,400 feet in elevation, shouldn’t have taken more than 40 minutes to descend. If the trail was a thing. It was not. Instead, we spent 3 hours bushwhacking our way down the Cascade Creek drainage. We stumbled across the remnants of the trail on several occasions, only to have it disappear under a tangle of fallen trees and adolescent alders steps later. Visibility was seldom more than twenty feet as the spring growth was borderline impenetrable. Three nervous hours of treacherous descending only to be met with the roaring waters of Ingalls Creek. Clinging to the banks, and dancing from one rock to the next in hope of a  reasonably dry crossing, we saw our hope evaporating. Screw it. Planting my trekking poles with all my might to brace against the current, I waded out into the water. I have no idea what voodoo magic my newly-purchased hiking pants had been enchanted with, but they did an astoundingly good job of repelling the frigid water as it raced around my knees and thighs. Kristin, some eight inches shorter than me, followed next and managed to step so the water never crested her thighs. We scrambled out of Ingalls Creek on the north bank, intercepted the Ingalls Creek trail (#1215) and found an empty campsite mere steps away. Incredibly, it was the campsite marked on the map that I had hoped to find.

Cascade Creek trail.

Bushwhacking the Cascade Creek trail… or what’s left of it.

We pitched camp, made a fire, put our boots and socks too close to said fire, and piled into our rather snug tent at 8:30, exhausted. We woke several times due to the cold, but otherwise slept straight through the night until after 8 a.m. Eleven hours of sleep should have been enough rest, but day two proved harder still.

campsite

Our campsite at the intersection of the Ingalls Creek and Cascade Creek trails.

There was an unspeakable dread lingering over our camp as we had our granola and coffee: the fear that the uphill climb out of the Ingalls Creek area was going to be as difficult as our descent into it was. Fortunately, the trail we were to take back to the south didn’t bear the “trail overgrown, hard to find” warning. It was also marked as being open to equestrians so, in theory, it should be a bit more well trodden. And it was. Our climb up Fourth Creek (#1219) was an enjoyable, scenic several miles that climbed relatively gently compared to the steep ascents of the prior day (and of those to come). Unfortunately, the easy three miles we anticipated along Ingalls Creek were anything but. The forest fire had left the area a maze of pick-up-sticks. And this being part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (note the capital “W”), trail maintenance can be done with hand tools only. No chainsaws allowed in Wilderness. So, for three miles, we climbed over, under, and around countless fallen trees that aren’t likely to be cleared anytime soon. No wonder we didn’t have to compete for a backcountry campsite: few people make it more than a few miles up the Ingalls Creek trail!

Sherpa Peak

The view of Sherpa Peak from the Ingalls Creek trail.

Our re-crossing of Ingalls Creek three miles upstream (and past several tributaries) was far easier. The cold night had also brought the flow rate down a bit — rivers run highest in the mid afternoon after the sun had all day to melt more snow. We were able to cross without the water lapping above our knees. Which, since we had another 12 miles to go, was nice.

Ingalls Creek

Crossing Ingalls Creek at the base of Fourth Creek.

From Fourth Creek we descended the Beverly Creek trail (#1391), took a deep breath, and turned up the Bean Creek trail (#1391.1). We were spent. The blisters on my heel had torn free, the skin flapping around under my socks. The heat of the day and the weight of our packs had begun to take its toll. I so wanted to be done. Kristin, forever steady, just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and urged us on. Conversation soon shifted to the plate of ribs we would enjoy back in Cle Elum, once we got to town. And, before long, we were cresting the Bean Creek divide and about to descend into the Standup Creek drainage, ready to complete our lollipop route with a 4-mile descent back to the car. We ran into another couple enjoying the view from atop the divide. They had done a similar overnight hike, minus the descent to Ingalls Creek. They too spent 3 hours bushwhacking along a portion of forgotten County Line trail. Mutual badassery was agreed-upon.

Beverly Creek.

Enjoying a gentle descent down the Beverly Creek trail.

Our hike was ultimately just 25.4 miles according to our GPS, but included 8,750 feet of elevation gain. That’s a whole lot of climbing for such a short distance. Too much if you ask me. This was a beautiful place to go hiking, but I can’t say I’d ever do this route again. There’s no reason to drop down to the Ingalls Creek side of the ridge again, least of all on any of the overgrown trails that should, in all honesty, probably be removed from the registry, erased from the maps, and left to revert to nature. It would be far too easy for someone less experienced and less fit to get in a very bad predicament attempting the descent down Cascade Creek. The sign atop the County Line ridge pointing to where the trail used to be is only tempting fate. But, for those who want an adventure, a physical test, and are looking to surround themselves with tremendous views and few people, this is a route worth considering. We only encountered other hikers on Stafford Creek and Bean Creek trails. Otherwise, we saw nobody. It was just us, the mountains, and our thoughts.

Our route and elevation profile for those familiar with the area.

Our route and elevation profile for those familiar with the area.

12 April, 2016

Day-Hiking the Central Cascades #1

Long before embarking on a two year cycling odyssey, prior to our amassing a stable of nine different bicycles (now only three), and before my love affair with mountain biking, we were hikers. Kristin and I stole away whenever we could during our college years to go backpacking. It wasn’t easy with my Saturdays being spent with the track team, not to mention our studies, but the Appalachian Trail ran just twenty miles from our campus in eastern Pennsylvania and we took advantage of it as often as we could. It wasn’t long before we had sectioned nearly 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail, biting off scenic chunks in North Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, and, of course, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, our stomping grounds.

Hiking gave way to mountain biking and trail running over the years, but something unexpected happened after our bike tour: I wanted to go hiking. It wasn’t that I was tired of cycling — I’ve been mountain biking three to four times a week lately — but something else entirely. Something unexpected.

I missed our time together.

Spending 21 months with someone, virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week without interruption, can be a lot to get used to. It was. There were days we now joke about, in which we simply wanted to go eight hours without seeing one another. Please! The best birthday gift she ever gave me was a half-day of freedom to wander Paris without her. And for her without me.

We had our moments when we argued and yelled and occasionally cursed at one another (usually on a really hilly ride in hundred-degree heat or intense cold and freezing rain) and this excessive amount of togetherness is often the first thing married couples ask us about when they learn of our trip. But for every bit as challenging as that was, it’s been equally difficult readjusting to the opposite: seeing that same person for just a few hours each night is no longer enough.

Enter hiking. We picked up a copy of Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Central Cascades book, an excellent guidebook containing maps and directions and information for 125 different day hikes stretching from Whidbey Island to the town of Wenatchee and north to Chelan, essentially, a slightly north-of-center tract across the state from the coast to just east of the mountains, in apple country. I have a bin filled with dozens of trail maps for all over the state, but my knowledge of the trails along Highway 2 is comparatively lacking, given that we have always lived along I-90, the other major east-west route in western Washington.

Most of the really good hikes in Washington are buried under snow for seven months of the year, which raises another reason for buying this book: it contains a number of lowland and island hikes, many we hadn’t done before (much of our exploration has tended to be where it is legal to mountain bike). So we started going hiking — and sometimes trail running — once every weekend with that thought that it would be nice to check off each of the hikes in this book in a calendar year. We’ve done a couple of two-a-days and even spent a weekend away on Whidbey Island in which we hiked four separate trails in the book. Some are quite short, but we hope to be able to link together several of the trails into longer loops as the weather improves and the snow melts.

Below are some thoughts on the day hikes we’ve done so far, along with recommendations for those we feel are worth doing. The conversations we have and the dreams and plans we share during those hikes will remain private. For now…

Whidbey Island

Normally when we go to Whidbey Island it’s to go mountain biking and trail running at Fort Ebey State Park or to gawk at the bridge at Deception Pass. These other hikes were a first for us.

Double Bluff (Hike #1)

Distance: 4 miles

Surface: Sand and Gravel Beach

Verdict: Best left to the local dog walkers.

Double Bluff Whidbey Island

The rocky far end of the Double Bluff beach walk.

The hike is a flat four-mile hike (out and back) along the beach. It’s a fine hike for locals and very popular with dog owners as the dogs can safely run off-leash at the base of a bluff, but I wouldn’t make a point of walking this route again, given the nicer walk at Ebey’s Landing. That said, the beach at Double Bluff has better footing than the one at Ebey Landing so those with walking difficulty should consider it. It is scenic, just not as scenic as some of the others.

South Whidbey State Park (Hike #2)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path

Verdict: Do it for the old-growth.

western red cedar old growth

Western Red Cedar over 500 years old and saved from logging in the 70s by a couple of literal “tree huggers”.

This short hike on the inland side of the road loops past several amazing old-growth trees, including a Western Red Cedar over 500 years old. It can be muddy in spots (we were there in February) and the walk through the upland part of the park is along an old wagon road with younger alder trees and not entirely worth the effort, but it is a nice, small park with a very attractive forest.

Greenbank Farm (Hike #3)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path & Grassland

Verdict: Worth a visit while you wait for the galleries to open.

Greenbank farm.

View of the farm and bay from the grassy ridge.

A network of trails looping through the forest and across the grassy ridge provide a nice place to take a stroll before or after your visit to the galleries and cafe at the Greenbank Farm complex. Views of the water and an opportunity for off-leash dog play are abundant. The forest isn’t particularly pretty, but the grassy area is quite nice. It’s worth stopping, even if only to stretch your legs.

Ebey’s Landing (Hike #4)

Distance: 5.6 miles

Surface: Sandy Trail and Gravel Beach

Verdict: Arguably the best hike on Whidbey Island!

Ebey's Landing

Kristin along the bluff at Ebey’s Landing.

If we were to do this hike again, we wouldn’t bother descending to the beach as the cobble/gravel surface made for a very unpleasant 2.5 mile return trip. Instead, we’d simply stay on the bluff where the trail begins. Follow the bluff northward for wonderful views of the beach below and the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound. Combine this hike with a trip to Coupeville for lunch!

Goose Rock (Hike #5)

Distance: 2.5 miles

Surface: Hilly Forest Path

Verdict: Worth the effort!

Goose Rock trail.

The steep path up Goose Rock near Deception Pass.

The climb up to the bridge provides some great views of Deception Pass and the forested trail that loops around — and then over — Goose Rock is very scenic. The switchbacks up to Goose Rock are steep (400 foot climb in 0.4 miles), but the views are worth the effort. It was quite windy and cold atop Goose Rock when we went in March so bring a coat if you want to linger.

Hoypus Point (Hike #6)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path & Paved Trail

Verdict: If you’re in the area…

View of Deception pass.

Looking across to Goose Rock from Hoypus Point Trail.

The closed-to-vehicles paved path that heads to Hoypus Point is a lovely mile-long trail offers plenty of majestic trees, waterfront views, and benches to enjoy. The trail that loops through the forest was exceedingly muddy in spots and relatively forgettable, save for a few areas of larger second-growth trees and towering firs and cedars.

Skykomish River Valley

We’ve never done any hiking along Highway 2 west of Steven’s Pass before. We were happy to have this guidebook motivate us to check it out.

Wallace Falls (Hike #14)

Distance: 5.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Exceptionally beautiful falls, but very crowded

Wallace Lake (Hike #15)

Distance: 5.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A pleasant hike without the crowds

Wallace Falls.

Wallace Falls is certainly worth the effort (and the crowds).

We combined Wallace Falls and Wallace Lake into a single 10+ mile hike. We chose to do this on a cloudy day in early March when the falls were at their most impressive. Several hundred other people chose to do the same. It was quite surprising how crowded the trail was given the steepness of the terrain, but the view of the falls more than makes up for the extra people. As crowded as the hike to the falls was, the hike to the lake on the Greg Ball trail was every bit as empty. We enjoyed a very peaceful walk through a beautiful forest en route to the lake, only to have the rain start when we got there. These two hikes can be looped with a road, but we did them as a “Y”. Both are worth doing, but next time I’d go during mid-week.

Wenatchee River Valley

We did these next two in a single day and then went to Leavenworth for lunch and some light shopping.

Tumwater Pipeline Trail (Hike #52)

Distance: 2.4 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: If you’re in the area…

This trail offers excellent views of the Wenatchee River and, in the spring, you’ll be able to watch some of the area kayakers having a blast in the meltwater. The trail crosses a water-logged bridge and then follows a rocky path along the side of a hill upstream for about a mile before seemingly petering out. It’s popular with dog walkers and those looking to stretch their legs before driving home.

Wenatchee River in spring.

Wenatchee River from the Tumwater Pipeline Trail, just beyond the bridge.

Peshastin Pinnacles (Hike #53)

Distance: 1.5 miles

Surface: Sandy hillside

Verdict: Leave it to the climbers

Peshastin Pinnacles outside of Cashmere is a postage-stamp of a park with several towering sandstone outcrops that are very popular with rock climbers. The trails that wind around the pinnacles are very steep, sandy, and not enjoyable to hike on. To be honest, I have no idea why this is even in the guidebook.

Peshastin Pinnacles

Peshastin Pinnacles are scenic, but not great for hiking.

11 November, 2015

The Next Adventure

We were in our cabin aboard the MV Hatsu Crystal, showing the other two passengers the slideshow videos I’ve made. Iris and Wolfran smiled and commented enthusiastically as the past two years of our lives danced across the screen. I was anxious to show them the video of North America, as they had each only ever been to New York City; a crime of self-deprivation so many Europeans commit when visiting our homeland.

Kristin and I smiled upon finally queuing up the North America video, as did our audience, although for different reasons. While they oohed and aahed over the mountain scenery and the size of the bison and the raging waterfalls, we warmed with the reminders of home, one we’d eventually be returning to.

We just didn’t realize how soon.

Those in personal contact with us have known since the summer that before leaving Bali last June, we had placed a deposit down for a four-month rental house in the Penestanan area outside of Ubud. The plan was to wrap up the bicycle tour at the end of January, 2016 and then settle into a life of normalcy – whatever shape it took – in Bali. I was to spend those months working on the novel I’ve been developing over the past year and Kristin was to test the waters of remote-employment. Ideally, she’d already have a job lined up; if not, she’d spend that time conducting a job search while we lived inexpensively in Indonesia.

If you're ever in Singapore and needing a bike shop, don't hesitate to check out Soon Watt Orbea on Changi!

If you’re ever in Singapore and needing a bike shop, don’t hesitate to check out Soon Watt Orbea.

Kristin began putting feelers out at the end of summer to so see if anyone, including her former employer, was in a position to hire her remotely. Her baited hook received a few nibbles, but the rod never bent. And then, at the end of September, her efforts netted an unexpected proposal that drew our immediate attention. We spent the entirety of October in a holding pattern to see if the final offer turned out to be one she couldn’t refuse. Long days at sea were spent discussing a ceaseless stream of if/then scenarios, efforts to predict and mold into shape the remainder of this trip, and our lives going forward.

We are now very excited to share the news that our plans, as you are no doubt unsurprised to hear, have shifted yet again.

Kristin will be returning to work at her former employer, in Seattle, this coming January, helping to lead one of the company’s new initiatives. It is an opportunity that not only allows us to return to the location we love most – we’ll be house-hunting in our old neighborhood at the base of the Cascade Mountains east of the city – but also affords me the opportunity to focus full time on my fiction writing endeavors.

That beautiful Seattle skyline. Photo by Larry Gorlin.

That beautiful Seattle skyline… it won’t be long now! Photo by Larry Gorlin.

Our plans to cycle north from Singapore to Bangkok have been shelved. Instead, we have rescheduled our house rental in Bali and applied our deposit to a month’s rental, ending mid-December. Bicycle touring, to repurpose a phrase from the Peace Corps, is the hardest vacation you’ll ever love. We enjoyed this experience immensely and are thrilled to have taken it, but we’ve made our final dismount. The 52 miles we cycled from the port in Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia to Singapore were our last. Seattle to Singapore by bicycle and ship was far enough — 226 degrees of longitude without leaving the planet’s surface.

Ready for the journey home to Washington State.

Ready for the journey home to Washington State.

We arrived at the incredibly helpful Soon Watt Orbea bike shop, still sweaty from the sauna-like conditions we rode in, after dropping our bags off at a nearby hotel in this locals-only area of Singapore. We left our bikes for boxing and headed in search of lunch. That we didn’t look back or shed a tear of sadness was all the proof we needed to know that the timing was right. Nigel and his staff had the bikes boxed up by the following afternoon, leaving the boxes open so we could slide our panniers, shoes, and spare tire and miscellany down into the space around the bike.

Aerial view of Snoqualmie Falls, the iconic waterfall two short miles from the neighborhood we'll be returning to. Photo by Puget Sound Energy.

Aerial view of Snoqualmie Falls, the iconic waterfall two short miles from the neighborhood — and friends and mountain bike trails — we’ll be returning to. Photo by Puget Sound Energy.

Through much expense and several shipping-related headaches, our bicycles and touring gear have been sent ahead to our storage unit in Washington State.  We checked out of the somewhat grimy hotel near the bike shop three days later, our Ortlieb duffel bags serving as our sole luggage, and went across town for a few days, intent on giving Singapore a second chance.

We considered heading straight home, but it was always important to us that we take a few weeks to reflect on what we accomplished; to ponder what we saw and where we’ve been. Once upon a time we imagined flying to an island in the Caribbean from Tierra del Fuego, but we always knew, deep down inside, that the map you see here was, in all likelihood, for inspiration purposes only. Fortunately, we were able to shift our rental deposit from February to the present. One final month in Bali, right back where we were in May, should ease the transition and help protect us from burning out on reentry.

We know there will be some out there who will try to compare our initial plan with the ultimate path we took and feel we failed. Some will pose questions about the places we didn’t go instead of the ones we had; Negative Nancies who only see the holes in the Swiss cheese of life.  They’ll fail to see that this decision, like the one we made nine years ago to undertake this challenge, is every bit as positive. We’re excited to have done what we’ve done – cycling nearly 13,000 miles and visiting twenty or so different countries – and equally pleased to have zigged when we planned to zag. Some of our favorite moments from these two years came in places we never intended to go. And, perhaps most of all, we’re thrilled to be ending this trip in the manner that we are. When we are. On our terms.

The moss-covered forests of western Washington beckon me home. Photo by Paris Gore.

The moss-covered forests of western Washington beckon us home.  Nothing like mountain biking in the PNW! Photo by Paris Gore.

As I wrote in a guest dispatch to another blog two months ago, the thing we’ve learned most during our time abroad is the need to be flexible. To continue on just because we once drew a line on a map would be foolish. Similarly, to accept this job offer if we both weren’t fully ready to begin the next stage of life, to embark on the next adventure, would leave us with a life of regrets and what-ifs. We have none, nor expect any. We’ve taken our bikes – and this trip – as far as we wish for it to go. Six hundred days on the road (and counting) is over forty years’ worth of two-week vacations strung together. And as everyone who’s ever travelled has admitted at one time or another, we (finally) miss our own bed.

I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but I do know someone who is. And he once (allegedly) gave some rather sage advice:

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

More to Follow: TwoFarGone.com won’t be going anywhere. We’ll no doubt have at least one or two wrap-up posts in the future (in addition to a second-take on Singapore next week) and at least the occasional update on how the transition back to home – and work — goes. I will also have an update in the coming months about my new website and work-in-progress. We’ll continue to travel, naturally, and will continue to post future travel-related articles to this site.

An Open Invitation: Our most cherished souvenirs from this adventure are the memories of the friends we made along the way, and the generosity they showed towards us. We wish to extend an open invitation to everyone who hosted us, shared a meal with us, or whom we spent a day sightseeing with, to please let us know if you’re ever in the Seattle area. It would give us so much pleasure to return the favor. And if you thought we were excited when you met us on the road, just wait till you see how enthusiastically we embrace the role of tour guide back home.

18 June, 2015

Top 10 Questions We Get Asked

We’re oh-so-close to getting back on our bikes after six months away from our beloved Salsa Fargos and we can’t wait. We spent the last two weeks in Florida at Kristin’s mom’s beach house, joining family in spreading her father’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico, and are headed back to New Jersey to collect our Ortlieb duffel bags, deposit some of the gear we took to Japan and Indonesia, and bid farewell to family one more time. We’ll be back in Italy, unboxing our stowed bikes in less than a week!

While we were making our 31-hour journey from Singapore to Florida earlier this month we thought it would be fun to assemble a “top 10” post from our first 15 months of being on the road. Rather than answer the most rudimentary questions (What’s your favorite meal?, What’s your favorite country?, How did you get across the Atlantic?, etc.,) we tried to remember the questions that scratched a little deeper. And in doing so, we were forced to remember — and acknowledge — that this has been one absolutely amazing trip so far.

We hope you enjoy this post and, if we failed to answer any questions your inquiring mind wants to know, go ahead and ask it in the comments section and we’ll be sure to reply as soon as possible!

1: What was your favorite day on the bike?

Doug: For me, it had to be our second big mountain day in Spain. I was really hesitant to leave Pamplona and my 8-year old GPS gave up the ghost the morning we were leaving so I had to wing it with just a compass and small-scale map. The next day, after camping in Logrono, we headed deep into the Sierra de la Demanda for some tremendous alpine scenery. We struggled to find a place to wild camp as we kept getting higher and higher into the mountains. The scenery was tremendous, the road very narrow and windy, sheep and cattle wore eerily clanging bells, and it was getting dark. And we just kept climbing and climbing along this narrow mountain creek until, finally, we found a wonderful primitive campground near a trailhead on the side of the road.  It was one of the darkest nights I had ever experienced and it got cold. But it was the perfect end to a tremendous day of early autumn cycling in the Pyrenees and capped our third consecutive day of 4,000 feet of climbing.

Kristin: For me, it was the day we finally reached the familiar scent of the Atlantic Ocean. We rolled out of Brooks, Maine that morning headed for Acadia National Park. We always knew we would eventually reach the Atlantic Ocean, but after enjoying the routine of biking, eating, and sleeping day after day, we were shocked when we realized that we actually did it. We bicycled across the USA at its widest point. It was as we crossed the beautiful bridge that connected the small island of Verona with mainland Maine that I smelled that salty, sea air. I stared at the back of Doug’s head, willing him to turn around. I didn’t want to ruin the moment by calling to him. Within a few minutes, he turned his head and through my tears, I saw his eyes glistening too. We stopped on the bridge, wrapped our arms around each other’s sweaty bodies and just paused to think about what we had just accomplished.

At the top of Puerto de Montenegro pass.

At the top of Puerto de Montenegro pass in the Sierra de la Demanda.

2: What was your favorite day off the bike?

Kristin: I will never forget my 39th birthday in Naples, Italy! Doug plans most days, but today was going to be special. The celebration started with dinner the night before at a small restaurant with live music. It started to lightly snow in Naples and the waiters all ran outside to see the flakes — it never snows in Naples! The next morning, we hopped a train to Pompeii where a dusting of snow made this wonder even greater. It was much larger and better preserved than I imagined. There were still tile mosaics in the bathhouses and terra cotta warming pots in the restaurants. After returning to Naples and a few hours of rest, we ventured out to the town square for a Time Square-like celebration to ring in the New Year. Yes, my birthday falls on December 31st! At midnight, after the countdown, many people in the crowd began lighting fireworks (most would have been illegal in the USA) and sparklers as long as my arm and the diameter of my index finger. It sounded like what I imagine a war zone to sound like. Later we returned to our room, walking down the middle of the street so as to avoid items being thrown out the windows. In Naples, people take “out with the old and in with the new,” quite literally as champagne bottles, small appliances, and even some furniture were thrown out in favor of a new start. This was a celebration unlike anything I’d experienced before and it went from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning. People in Naples know how to ring in the New Year.

Doug: Kristin planned a tremendous day for my 39th birthday in Paris. We walked up to Sacre Couer first thing in the morning and then split up for a few hours. I had to get some new bike chains and a new tire and went and walked through Paris by myself on a bit of a cafe/pub-crawl. That night, Kristin took me to the incredibly beautiful Sainte-Chapelle to see a string ensemble perform Pachelbel’s Canon, Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, and Vivaldi’s entire Four Seasons led by one of the France’s top violinists. It was absolutely amazing. We then had a fantastic dinner at an upscale cafe while watching some guys play a fun yard game out in the square. After dinner these two younger Parisians, Cedric and Jeffrey, taught us how to play the Swedish game Molkke. I took to it right away and won my share of games. We played until nearly midnight when one of the wealthy neighbors came out to complain about our noise.

Pompeii and the volcano that put it in the history books.

Pompeii and the volcano that put it in the history books.

3: What was the biggest dose of culture shock?

Doug: We spent a month in Morocco, our first Muslim country, and then, on December 9th, boarded a ferry bound for Livorno, Italy. We were tired, emotionally spent, and not really thinking too clearly about the seasons. When we finally arrived in Italy, very late on December 11th, we pedaled four miles through darkened streets to our hotel. The next morning, we awoke to realize our hotel was right in the middle of a bustling Christmas market. We had completely forgotten about Christmas. The transition from southern Spain to Morocco was so gentle thanks to the long-forgotten Moors (“Moops” for our fellow Seinfeld fans) but going straight from a month in Morocco, capped with ten days in the Sahara, to a Christmas market in Italy… it was almost too much to comprehend.

Kristin: On April 27th, after six weeks in Japan, we boarded a plane to leave the polite, modern world of Tokyo. We loved the city. There are so many people in one place and yet it never felt crowded or claustrophobic. Everyone was courteous and respectful of everyone else’s space. But we were excited to be finally headed to Bali and after ten hours, we were thrust into another world. The streets of Kuta, our first stop, were crowded with honking cars and motorbikes and the sidewalks were filled with people bumping past each other. Most every store front was a cheap souvenir store, tour or taxi service, or massage parlor with workers outside constantly calling to us. It was also very dirty in spots. It was too much in-your-face chaos too soon. After a good night sleep, we accepted Kuta for what it was and enjoyed the party, but the initial shock nearly had us back on the plane for Tokyo.

4: List your Top 3 favorite food memories!

Kristin: Anyone who knows me knows that every tooth in my mouth is a sweet tooth and I never met anything sugary that I didn’t like. So, when we arrived in Morocco and I had my first sip of the sugary sweet mint tea, I was in love. It tasted like mint flavored sweet tea from the southern United States, but served hot. Next on my list are the baguettes in France, which seems obvious, but when I imagined a French woman walking elegantly down the street, I never pictured her gnawing on a baguette for lunch and yet that was what I saw. Naturally, I paid my euro for a whole baguette and joined in. And last but not least, I loved the plethora of fresh fruit (papaya, passion fruit, dragon fruit, guava, mangosteen, to name a few) in Bali. Much of it I had never seen nor was really sure how to eat, but the locals were always willing to help us out or sometimes we just figured it out. Eating is a huge part of the joy of this trip.

Doug: Forgive me for speaking in general terms, but after so many great snacks and tremendous meals, I struggle to be very specific. For me, when I think about food, the first thing that comes to mind is the unbelievable French bakeries (boulangeries/patisseries). The baguettes and pastries being produced in France are, for my money, the highest quality, most affordable food on the planet. Next up, I’d have to say our first kaiseki meal in a Japanese ryokan. We stayed in a few ryokans while in Japan, but nothing compared to that first 11-course meal at Aura Tachibana. And, lastly, for my third pick, I’ll just say Tuscany. All the food in Tuscany. All of it. Especially the meal we ate on a rainy, frigid, day in the mountains served up by a former Miss Italia.

Our appetizer contained shrimp pudding, butterfish, green-tea tofu, chicken jelly, and a turkey pastrami.

The appetizer course of a meal at Aura Tachibana in Hakone, Japan.

5: What cultural observation surprised you the most?

Doug: After spending a month in France, a month in Spain, and a month in Morocco, three countries with very established “cafe cultures” for lack of a better word (Spain less so than France and Morocco), I have to say I was quite surprised by the lack of a cafe culture in Italy. Italians belly up to the espresso bar, order, throw back their shot in one gulp, and are out the door as fast as can be. I noticed very little loitering in Italian cafes, very few people reading the paper or watching the day unfold. Which shocked me given how unhurried most Italians seemed to be. That said, the cafes in Italy stock an impressive array of alcohol and appear to do most of their business in the evenings when people stop for a drink or three after work. Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many chairs and tables in Italian cafes.

Kristin: Japan is small and space is limited, so I was shocked to see the size of the stores and number of choices in every category. Just one store, Yodobashi Camera in Osaka, had eight massive floors of electronics. I couldn’t believe how many high quality choices there were for every category of electronics from refrigerators, to vacuums, washers and dryers, to printer paper, to speaker wire, everything electronic. Just as an example, there were over one hundred different vacuums to choose from and the printer paper section spanned about 2000 square feet. Every item had a variety like this. If you wanted a rice cooker, you had dozens of models to choose from. The section devoted to camera tripods was larger than most camera stores we have in the USA. I’ll be very jealous when I start looking to furnish a home and faced with America’s limited choices.

6: What was your favorite region/country to travel by bicycle?

Kristin: Even though the New England region of the USA provided some of the hilliest and longest days, the friendliness of the people more than made up for it. We cycled up Terrible Pass in Vermont with a pair of roadies who chatted with us until our paths diverged and nearly six months later invited us to see them when they heard that we were back in New Jersey for a few weeks. Also in Vermont, we had a motel owner toss the keys to his new car to Doug to drive the two of them to pick up our pizza and beer. The pizza place didn’t deliver, nor did any other restaurant in town, and the motel owner had had two beers, but didn’t want us to go hungry. In Maine, we were adopted for the night by a dozen senior citizen hot rod owners staying at the Fryberg Fairground. We cycled up to ask them if they knew where we might camp for the night and before we knew it they insisted that we join them for dinner, let us put up our tent behind their RVs, and fed us until we cried mercy. The following morning, several of them brought us baggies of brownies, muffins, and bread to have for breakfast and take with us for snacks during the day. We have met friendly people everywhere, but these were just a few standout memories that we wouldn’t have had if we were driving.

Doug: I want to say Spain, but I can’t. I have to go with my backyard and say the northwestern United States. Particularly, that stretch between Puget Sound and Glacier National Park. The scenery is phenomenal, the environments varied, and there are so many affordable camping options that bike touring is just easier there. We camped in State Parks, County Parks, National Parks, and plenty of National Forests, the latter of which has a tremendous system of primitive campgrounds. Also, food is abundant and inexpensive (gas station Teriyaki for the win!), there are a number of friendly WarmShowers hosts. Also, the roads aren’t bad at all and there are plenty of rail-trails to be ridden. If you’re looking for good roads, abundant non-commercial camping, and great scenery, the Pacific Northwest is tough to beat!

Moonpies and a campfire on the shores of Lake Chelan in central Washington state.

Moonpies and a campfire on the shores of Lake Chelan in central Washington state, our fourth night out.

7: What place are you most looking forward to returning to?

We’ll tag team this answer since we have the same top two responses and they’re essentially 1a and 1b. First, we have to say Bali. Not for bicycle touring, but for living. And we’re actually going to be doing just that next year, as we already made arrangements to rent a great little house outside of Ubud for four months in 2016, just a short walk through the rice fields to our favorite haunts from last month. So that, by default, has to be mentioned first. The other place that we really hope to return to is Pamplona, Spain. Pamplona had a tremendous blend of parks, public squares, cafes and restaurants, and nearby recreation that it really suited us. It’s also a very clean, well-organized city, with a lot of culture and history. And the best part, in our opinion, is that it’s relatively free of tourists outside those two weeks in the summer when the world comes to run with the bulls. Kristin has been working on improving her Spanish language skills with Duolingo and looks forward to putting it to use in the future.

I can get used to this.

Nightlife in Pamplona.

8: What place do you hope to never return to again?

Kristin: North Dakota. Whether riding or camping, the wind is more than I could handle at times. Some days we had a tailwind and it was wonderful, but most days it was either a strong crosswind or strong headwind. We had two days that we had to cut short after a few hours of cycling averaging only 5 to 7 miles per hour and realizing we wouldn’t make it to our planned destination. In camp, the wind continued to annoy by whisking away our plates, napkins, plastic garbage bags, and anything else that wasn’t weighted down. There were plenty of nice views and scenery, and we met some friendly, generous people too, but the incessant wind was miserable. If I ever return, it won’t be on a bicycle!

Doug: I’ve complained about Morocco enough over the past six months, that it’s starting to feel like I’m piling on, but I have to say the city of Fes. It’s just not for me. There are a lot of neat things about Fes, but for every wonderful moment we had, we had two or three blood-boiling moments of frustration. I don’t care for places where the only way to survive is to assume most people are scam-artists. It’s particularly disappointing as I always counted Morocco as one of the three countries I was most excited to visit. It’s been funny to talk to other long-term travelers these past few months about Morocco. As soon as the topic comes up, everybody we meet who has been there just puts their hands up to stop me right there. “Don’t get us started about Morocco. Let’s talk about something else,” they say. I’m happy to know it’s not me (though, of course, those who experience Morocco on package tours often regale us with a very different opinion).

The hills of the plains aren't big, but they're never-ending. As are the headwinds.

The hills of North Dakota’s central plains aren’t big, but they’re never-ending. As are the headwinds.

9: What were your favorite obvious tourist attractions?

There are plenty of so-called must-see attractions that we rolled right on past, but we did stop for some of them. We even went way, way out of our way for a couple too. A brief list of our favorites in no particular order: Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Michelangelo’s David, Bodleian Library at Oxford, Pompeii in the snow, the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, live Flamenco performance in Seville, the Eiffel Tower, Mont Saint-Michel, and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

So much energy in flamenco, especially from such a close distance.

So much energy in flamenco, especially from such a close distance.

10: What was your most embarrassing moment?

This was a joint-humiliation affair so this will have to cover both of us. We were still in Washington state, staying with a WarmShowers host in eastern WA and he so graciously emailed to say that he would be home after we arrived and we should just let ourselves in. We were really shy about doing this so we instead went to a bar for an hour and then came back. He still wasn’t home so we finally got up the courage to let ourselves in. He had cats. Two of them, one orange and one black. We did our best to keep them away from the door, but we had a lot of panniers to bring in and, well, in the chaos of us going back and forth from the basement guestroom to our bikes outside, the cats disappeared.

Panic immediately set in. We started running throughout the house calling out for “black cat” and “orange cat” hoping that they would respond to these ridiculous calls. The cats were nowhere. And then we noticed the door was ajar. Oh no. We ran to the door and looked out the window and didn’t see them. Another hurried search of the house turned up nothing. What are we going to do? “We need to just go,” I said to Kristin. “We need to just pretend we were never here and hope someone returns the cats. Lets get back on our bikes and find a motel before he comes home.” She didn’t like this idea. I didn’t like it either, but what choice did we have? I was already envisioning these poor cats getting eaten by a coyote or run over by a car.

We stood in shock in the kitchen, feeling absolutely awful. And then we heard the dog barking outside. He was in a fenced-in kennel and barking like crazy. We went outside to see what the problem was and that’s when we saw the cats. They were sitting on their hind legs right outside the door. Miracles exist! We each grabbed a cat and quickly carried them inside, tremendously relieved that they actually allowed us to pick them up.

Two hours later, showered, beer in hand, and talking with our host, the cats wandered into the kitchen. Our host bent down to pet them, then stood, and opened the door to let them go outside. “I should have asked you to let them out when you got here since I had to work late,” he said.

Yes, the cats we were so panicked over; the cats we imagined being killed by our negligence, turned out to be outdoor cats. Outdoor cats we should have just let out.

24 February, 2015

A Winter to Remember

The thermometer read -8.7º F (-22º C) when I came down for coffee this morning. The snow outside, blanketing the field out the window of the bedroom-turned-office I spend my days in, fell over a month ago. It doesn’t melt, it only deepens, compacts, and hardens. I had forgotten what winter felt like. Sure, we’d get occasional snowstorms and a couple days below freezing at our house in western Washington, but winter weather — real winter weather — was something we dealt with only by choice. It was tucked away in the mountains to our east, always there if you wanted to visit, but not something that you had to deal with on a daily basis.

Short-lived snow showers like this one don't add up to much, but sure look pretty coming down.

Short-lived snow showers like this one don’t add up to much, but sure look pretty coming down.

It’s been 17 years since Kristin and I spent a winter in the northeastern United States, and even then it was only to bundle up for the dash across a Pennsylvania college campus. With no shoveling responsibilities of our own back then, it hardly counts. So, in reality, it’s been over two decades since we experienced winter life in New Jersey, dealing with the cold and the snow and wind-chill and the ever-changing road conditions and fretting about the lack of tire-tread on the car we’re driving.

IMG_2776_SoloTreeSnow

One of the many snowy days since our return to NJ.

This much I now know: Sub-freezing temperatures feel a lot warmer when you only experience them while strapped into a snowboard or snowshoeing through knee-deep powder with a pack on your back. Recreation makes everything better. Warmer. Running errands, going for a walk, and taking the garbage out, on the other hand, exposes you to a cold I had long since forgotten existed. We’ve been back in New Jersey for over a month and the daytime temperature has only risen above freezing a half-dozen times in that span. Too many days failed to exceed 26º F (-3º C). The layer of ice on the driveway and front walk has existed for over three weeks. An inch-thick slab with no signs of budging, it has stubbornly ignored the sprinklings of salt and chemical de-icer I apply.

Went for a hike on the mountain bike trails at nearby Chimney Rock Park, one of the first places I ever mountain bikes with my brother.

Went for a hike on the mountain bike trails at nearby Chimney Rock Park, one of the first trails I rode with my brother.

There was a period last summer, during our ride through New England, when we began to think that settling in Vermont might be worth considering in order to be closer to family. As far as New England states go, Vermont’s geography and politics offers a close approximation to western Washington, its landlocked nature aside. But now? Hell no, screw that, not in a million years! The cold and snow we’ve been bemoaning for the past month in New Jersey is but a mere sample of a typical Vermont winter. No thank you. The inevitable drought that will plague the Pacific Northwest  later this year could be severe, but those balmy spring-like conditions Seattle has been enjoying lately sure seem nice from this side of the country.

I wrote most of the preceding paragraphs yesterday morning: then the ambulance came.

Kristin’s father was in terrible pain throughout the weekend, pain that was suddenly manifesting in nausea and trembling. The comforts of home were no longer enough to keep him comfortable. Fortunately, he’s got a great team of doctors and was admitted into the hospital, assigned a cozy single-patient room, and is close enough to home for frequent family visits. It may or may not be directly related to the cancer, we’ll know more soon.

Nothing like a walk through the woods on a freezing cold day.

Nothing like a walk through the woods on a freezing cold day.

Life is a funny thing. We’ve been back in the United States for over six weeks now and, if we’re being honest, we really miss our bikes. We think about them daily, miss being on the move, and have even questioned the length of this unexpected trip home. Sure, we’ve gotten to spend more time visiting family this winter than we have in years, but it’s not our nature to sit idle. We’re restless people.  We just want to get going again. But then something like yesterday happens and we’re so relieved that we happen to be here. Kristin’s mother was glad that Kristin was in the house to call her sisters as she dealt with the EMTs. Kristin, in turn, was happy to hand the phone to me when she began to sob. Our brothers-in-law were both available to accompany Kristin’s sisters to the hospital while we babysat our niece and nephew.  The day went as well as it could, the strength of this family I’m happy to have married into fully on display. Back home after another visit, I cooked dinner so Kristin’s mother could pack a bag and get back to the hospital quickly. Kristin tended to her father’s pertinent email as her sisters called with updates from the hospital. Nobody needed us to be here, but we’re sure glad we were.

Kristin's parents dogs enjoying the snowy weather from the comforts of their chair.

Kristin’s parents dogs enjoying the snowy weather from the comforts of their chair.

Kristin and her dad were supposed to have left for Washington D.C. yesterday morning for a three-night father-daughter getaway. They had even arranged for a tour of the White House with the local Congressman. That trip to D.C., the other Washingtonisn’t going to happen. Or maybe it will. The one thing we’ve learned this past year is to not try and predict the future. We were supposed to be in Greece by now. We’re not. Instead, we’re headed to Japan in two weeks. Or maybe not.  We’re flexible.

Future Travel: When we left Italy last month we did so planning to spend March and April in Japan before heading to Bhutan for an 11-day trek in the Himalaya. That trip was cancelled last week due to a shortage of signups (we declined the option to pay extra for a private tour, as it was already budget-bustingly expensive to begin with). Not wanting to head back to North America or Europe after just going to Japan, we decided to book the entire month of May in Bali, in a small house in Ubud that will serve as a perfect writer’s retreat and basecamp for exploring Bali, Lombok, and Komodo. I miss surfing. Kristin misses yoga.

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Special Thanks: Kristin wanted me to once again thank you all for the wonderful comments and encouragement you left in response to our Detours Ahead post and to make sure we provided you, our faithful readers and friends, a short update. Those wanting a bit more information might be interested in this article about Kristin’s father, Eric, that was recently published in the local paper here in NJ. We’d also like to thank my mother for her generous contribution to our “cherry blossom party” and her sister Susan, my aunt, for a lovely Valentine’s Day gift. And to all of our family and friends who we’ve spent time with this past six weeks, letting us eat your food and drink your beers.